Farmers Find New Allies and Solutions
Promise for Michigan agriculture
September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
(continued from previous page)
In a response published by the newspaper, Jack Laurie, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, said Mr. Litman's critique was deeply flawed. New housing developments generally cost communities more -- to provide services like schools, utilities, and fire and police protection -- than they pay in property taxes, Mr. Laurie said. He added that assuring adequate food supplies for a growing population depends on having enough land to grow crops.
The debate over rural land protection is a volatile mix of policy, economics, and culture. And no group is more in conflict than the farmers themselves.
For example, the 160,000-member Michigan Farm Bureau has endorsed a "property rights" policy that calls for farmers to be able to use their land as they see fit, without interference from state or local governments.
On the other hand, many farmers recognize the need for new public policies to help end the peril to their way of life and Michigan's valuable farm economy from current land-consuming trends. During its annual meeting in Traverse City last December, the Michigan Farm Bureau adopted a resolution calling for better planning to preserve farmland, and for taking "aggressive leadership" in communicating the need to strengthen state land use policy.
"I can't tell you how hard this issue is for us," said Scott Everett, associate legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. "Some farmers are ready to cash in for retirement. The young farmers want to keep farming. Meanwhile the land is being fragmented by low-density housing. We've got to fix it."
Last September, Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based policy research firm, found new evidence that voters are ready to do just that. About 800 residents statewide, representing a cross section of income and education levels, were asked in a survey about their attitudes toward sprawl. Seventy percent said it was "very important to preserve and maintain agricultural lands." Just 20% believed current land use laws are adequate to prevent sprawl and protect farmland.
Bill Rustem, the firm's vice president and former environmental policy advisor to Gov. William G. Milliken, said the results indicate "there is a tremendous need for the development of an overall vision of what we want our state to look like in the future."
The place to build such a consensus is at the local level, and communities are stepping forward to become the principal incubators of ideas to protect farmland. No area has acted more resolutely than northwest Michigan:
• Grand Traverse County's Peninsula Township, with one of the world's best micro-climates for growing cherries, voted in 1994 to increase property taxes to purchase 9,700 acres of farmland development rights. The township already is halfway toward its goal, with nearly 5,000 acres preserved.